Heaven doesn't fit popular stereotypes
GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--The popular notion of the "sweet by and by" is often one of clouds, pain-free bliss and not much else -- except for the occasional angel floating by with a harp. If one's idea of eternity is a happy pill, such an image might be appealing.
Author Randy Alcorn, in his bestselling book "Heaven," illustrates contemporary Christianity's failure in teaching on eternal life by quoting a pastor who admitted: "I can't stand the thought of that endless tedium. To float around in the clouds with nothing to do but strum a harp ... it's all so terribly boring. Heaven doesn't sound much better than hell. I'd rather be annihilated than spend eternity in a place like that."
More than one music leader has suggested, based on Bible passages that speak of music, that a believer's eternity will be a never-ending sing-along around a celestial piano.
Most people enjoy good music and everyone wants bliss, but are these accurate depictions of what heaven will be like?
What is heaven?
Revelation 21:1-8 describes a renewed creation at the end of time this way: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
"Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: 'Look! God's dwelling is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will exist no longer; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.'
"Then the One seated on the throne said, 'Look! I am making everything new.' He also said, 'Write, because these words are faithful and true.' And He said to me, 'It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give to the thirsty from the spring of living water as a gift.
The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars -- their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.'" (HCSB)
Wayne Grudem, a professor of Bible and theology at Phoenix Seminary, writes in his popular "Systematic Theology" textbook: "When referring to this place, Christians often talk about living with God 'in heaven' forever. But in fact the biblical teaching is richer than that: it tells us that there will be new heavens and a new earth -- an entirely renewed creation -- and we will live with God there."
Grudem emphasizes that heaven is a physical place, not just a state of being, contrary to some other commentators, who Grudem alleges are hesitant to emphasize the physicality of the believer's eternal destination.
Grudem notes that heaven refers to two distinct places: the abode of believers who die in the present world and immediately join God in a place that Scripture calls heaven, and the New Earth, which will include all the redeemed of all the ages after God completes his saving work.
"In fact, heaven may be defined as follows: Heaven is the place where God most fully makes known his presence to bless," Grudem writes.
David P. Nelson, professor of theology and academic vice president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said: "Unlike the notion of some that we will float around in the age to come as disembodied beings, the Scriptures are clear about the sheer 'bodilyness' of eternal life. Paul goes to great lengths in 1 Corinthians 15 to explain this point. And this has significant implications for the manner in which we use our bodies in this life -- we were bought with a price, so we must glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20), we must present out bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord." (Romans 12:1)
"We're handicapped when it comes to heaven," said John Meador, pastor of First Baptist Church of Euless, Texas, who was preparing to preach on the topic as this story was being written. "We don't know what it is like! Islam has a 'heaven' with each martyr being nurtured by 72 virgins. The Hindu heaven is 'Nirvana' or endless peace and rest. Mormons say heaven is a place of marriage and family activity.
"But for Christians, well, we get the angel-on-a-cloud-with-a-harp thing. Or even worse for some -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a glorified church service," Meador added. "No wonder we hold off as long as we can! God, however, reveals tangible and vivid details of what we will experience, explore and enjoy in heaven. It defies comparison with anything you've ever known, and it is revealed in living detail in the Word."
So what will the perfected bodies on the New Earth be like?
Wayne Martindale, in his 2005 book "Beyond the Shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell," wrote: "We find the best clue available in Jesus' resurrected body. On the one hand, Jesus appears suddenly in a room with locked doors and ultimately floats into heaven. On the other, Jesus takes pains to calm this fear for His followers: He eats fish, breaks bread, and converses in audible language that uses 'normal' bodily functions. He was recognized by his disciples as the Jesus who had been with them over miles of dusty road. He was so substantial that He had to admonish Mary Magdalene to let go. Thomas was invited to touch His wounds.
"The resurrection body of Jesus, like the new body He promises to bestow on us, has amazing capabilities," Martindale added. "It is not an issue of giving up the things about our present bodies we know and love and that God in Christ created good. It is more like getting a new model with expanded capabilities that we will assuredly like."
But before God creates the New Earth, the souls of believers who die "go immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing" and will be reunited with their resurrected bodies when Christ returns, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
Some theologians have called the place of believers prior to the redemption of creation the "intermediate heaven" or the "intermediate state," though Alcorn emphasizes that heaven in its intermediate state will change.
"The present heaven is a temporary lodging, a waiting place until the return of Christ and our bodily resurrection," Alcorn writes. "The eternal heaven, the New Earth, is our true home, the place where we will live forever with our Lord and each other. The great redemptive promises of God will find their fulfillment on the New Earth, not in the intermediate heaven."
A regenerated creation
Sermons that explicitly describe heaven are rare. Books are rare too, with Alcorn's book and a handful of others the exceptions. "Heaven" borrows from other Christian authors and theologians and years of Alcorn's own research to formulate a picture of heaven where believers retain their unique personalities and, unblemished by sin with regenerated bodies in their purest form, they engage their talents in his service. Alcorn quotes several Christian thinkers who believe the redeemed are destined to have 20- or 30-something bodies and minds -- whatever the optimum age is.
Alcorn joins many other Christian writers who have proposed that believers will enjoy a re-created earth that recovers what was lost in Eden and then some, with the New Earth continuing in advancements made in the present earth through the labor of believers.
That includes eating real food, resting, working at jobs -- perhaps continuing on in pursuits we love or learning new ones -- and fellowship with old friends and new ones in a physical world with real trees, flowers, and structures. In short, the best world one could imagine.
Alcorn also surmises that earth's social dynamics will continue on the New Earth, "except when they are a product of our fallenness or when God reveals otherwise."
Noting the evil done from scientific advancement (the atom bomb), medical advancement (abortion and euthanasia), and technological advancement (Internet porn), Alcorn writes: "Imagine those advances used purely for righteous purposes, without sin to taint them. What you are imagining is the New Earth."
In imaginative form, Alcorn writes: "What kind of work will we do in heaven? Maybe you'll build a cabinet with Joseph of Nazareth. Or with Jesus. Maybe you'll tend sheep with David, discuss medicine with Luke, sew with Dorcas, make clothes with Lydia, design a new tent with Paul or Priscilla, write a song with Isaac Watts, ride horses with John Wesley, or sing with Keith Green. Maybe you'll write a theology of the Trinity, bouncing your thoughts off Paul, John, Polycarp, Cyprian, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley ... and even Jesus."
Stanley D. Toussaint, writing in "Behold the King: A Study of Matthew," said the Jews in Jesus' day believed "the Messiah, after His advent, would create a new heaven and new earth. The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah (65:17, 66:22) was the solid foundation for this doctrine."
Deron Biles, associate professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said: "The Old Testament is a book about beginnings, so it is not surprising that in the Old Testament we find the beginnings of a clear biblical picture on eternity. From the Old Testament we learn of creation, life, sin, covenant, and eternity, and also, in it we learn that 'he has set eternity in our hearts.'" (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Biles said Isaiah 26:19 clearly teaches a bodily existence with God in eternity for the faithful, that Isaiah 57:15-18 teaches a place of healing and comfort, and that Isaiah 6:1-3 teaches of a place filled with praises for God.
Additionally, Biles said, Psalm 23 speaks the comforting words of dwelling in the Lord's house forever. Further, in Job 19:25-27, Job says: "But I know my living Redeemer, and He will stand on the dust at last. Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet I will see God in my flesh. I will see Him myself; my eyes will look at [Him], and not as a stranger. My heart longs within me."
Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, commented: "My favorite passage about heaven is found in Revelation 21-22. There are seven things there that cause me to praise God about Heaven:
1) In heaven, we shall be in God's immediate presence. (Revelation 22:4, 22)
2) In heaven, there will be no sorrow or pain or death. (22:4)
3) In heaven, there shall be no more sin. (22:8, 27)
4) In heaven, God's glory will be overwhelmingly beautiful. (22:11)
5) In heaven, we shall know and commune with all who believe in him. (22:24)
6) In heaven, all of our needs will be met. (23:1-2)
7) In heaven, we shall see God and his Son in the light. (23:4-5)
"Finally, the great thing about heaven is that the one who will hear the Spirit and the church say, 'Come,' whosoever that is, he or she may 'take the water of life freely,'" Yarnell said. "What a great God we have to offer us such a great heaven simply out of grace!"
Southeastern Seminary's Nelson said of contemporary views of Heaven: "Too often we understand life in the age to come simply in the context of 'heaven,' which we take to be something up in the atmosphere apart from the ground on which we live. But the Bible describes eternal life as our existence as whole beings, soul and body, who occupy new heavens and a New Earth, all illuminated by the glory of the triune God.
"Imagine that: the most beautiful site on this present Earth that we have ever seen will pale in comparison to the beauty of the re-created world in which we will one day dwell. And the greatest beauty of all will be our God himself."
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, in which this article originally appeared.